Born to Bahamian tomato farmers in Miami on February 20, 1927, Poitier spent his early life on Cat Island in the Bahamas, which had a population of 1,500 and no electricity. After a difficult childhood, Poitier quit school at the age of 12-and-a-half years to help his family secure an adequate income.
Three years after he quit school, Poitier was sent to live with his brother in Miami, where he quickly became acquainted with racism. “I learned quite quickly that there were places I couldn’t go, that I would be questioned if I wandered into various neighborhoods,” Poitier had told AP in 1999, recalling his early years in America.
Poitier soon moved to Harlem in New York City and initially enrolled in the US Army. However, he escaped the Army by feigning insanity and was drawn towards acting by a newspaper advertisement calling for actors for the American Negro Theater.
After several failed attempts to get a role, Poitier finally got his breakthrough from a Broadway producer who cast him in the Black version of Aristophanes’ play, ‘Lysistrata’. His performance was received enthusiastically by critics who gave him rave reviews, and in 1950, Poitier finally got his break on the big screen.
Poitier’s first film, ‘No Way Out’ (1950), saw the Bahamian-American actor play the role of a doctor treating a Caucasian bigot, the first of several roles through which Poitier broke the glass ceiling for Black actors in the US. Prior to Poitier, few Black actors were allowed to deviate from their pre-designated stereotypical roles as servants and entertainers for Caucasian people.
While Poitier’s performance in ‘No Way Out’ (1950) received considerable plaudits, it wasn’t until 1955 that Poitier found his way to stardom. Poitier’s breakthrough big screen performance came in ‘Blackboard Jungle’ (1955), where he played the role of a student in a notorious high-school class.
Three years later, Poitier starred in Stanley Kramer’s ‘The Defiant Ones’ (1958) and bagged an Oscar nomination, the first for a Black male. Poitier’s historical achievement quickly saw him become an actor in demand, and he was cast in several feature films between 1959 and 1963.
Poitier’s performance in ‘Lilies of the Field’ (1963) was another historic one and saw him become the first Black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. The Bahamian-American actor’s career picked up after his historic Oscar win, and he peaked in 1967, with outstanding performances in three of the best films of the year, ‘To Sir, with Love’, ‘In the Heat of the Night’, and ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’.
Poitier would go on to make dozens of other films over the course of his acting career, and would even dabble in film direction from the 1970s. The legendary Black actor directed the 1980 comedy ‘Stir Crazy’, which, for years, remained the highest-grossing film directed by an African American director.
Poitier’s legendary career saw him being anointed as an honourary knight of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974. He went on to win several notable awards over the next three decades, including the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, a Grammy Award for the Best Spoken Album, the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award, and the Academy Honorary Award. In 2009, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, the highest civilian honour in the US.
Poitier was married to his second wife, Joanna, at the time of his death, and is succeeded by six children and several grandchildren.